Interrogating the idea of ‘freedom’

Since freedom for the individual is likely to unleash creativity, it terrifies the agents of collectivity

There can be no doubt that freedom is the biggest blessing. One can realise one’s full potential only when optimally free. The realisation of freedom is equally important. Freedom becomes efficacious only through the consciousness of it.

After contemplating closely on ‘freedom’ as a notion, I have concluded that the concept is multi-layered and that it is erroneously employed in the academia as well as by the literati in general. So far humans have managed to attain freedom at the collective level as nations, communities and sects, etc.

The prevailing world order, spearheaded by the emerging superpower, China, unequivocally calls for the sustenance of collectivity which is only possible by suppressing the aspirations and potential of the individual. But to what extent has the ‘individual’ been blessed with freedom to say, act, or choose under the Western liberalism? No one seems to have a definitive answer to this question.

The ‘individual’ has to be mindful of the socio-political implications of what he/she says or the way he/she acts. The irony is that a majority of the people, no matter where they live, have no realisation of what binds or restricts them. Freedom for the collective is often conflated with freedom for the individual.

Interestingly, freedom for the individual is often considered inimical to if not starkly subversive of the security and well-being of the collective. The creative process is inherently tied to the extent of freedom available to an individual. Investing power and prestige in the collective implies control of the creative process. Iif the individual is accorded sufficient freedom, the process is unleashed. The fear of such creative process haunts governments and the elites that galvanize the social norms and traditions to their advantage. Since freedom for the individual is likely to unleash creativity, it terrifies the agents of the collective.

Another, equally riveting, aspect of the debate around the notion of freedom is, if one goes by what Michel Foucault infers from different archival sources with respect to the evolution of state institutions, that state (particularly modern state) is essentially a coercive mechanism that sustains itself by appropriating the freedom of the individual. The more modern the state, the more coercive it is.

Up till now we have scrutinised two phenomena, freedom as it is mostly meant, denotes freedom for the collective and if I may add here, it is seen in the colonial context. Freedom for the individual remains elusive despite several discursive claims to the contrary.

French philosopher, Michel Foucault, has asserted that the state is a coercive and not a liberating mechanism for the individual. The State, in fact, thrives by suppressing the individual through often invisible power that it exercises through its institutions.

According to Edward Said it is through the appropriation of a knowledge system (which is culturally and socially produced in the indigenous setting), that a nation or community can be controlled or managed. In the words of Foucault an individual can be disciplined. Thus, knowledge production is often orchestrated by those who are at the helm. Through dissemination of instruction, the interest of the powerful is advanced obviously to the detriment of the rest of the citizenry.

Physical incarceration or bondage can be effectively brought to peroration but enslavement through control of knowledge systems is different. Thus, the lethality of the colonial dispensation was its establishing control over knowledge production and deciding what the colonised should learn or not learn.

Even after decolonisation in the wake of World War II, discursive hegemony of the former colonial masters remained firmly entrenched. Every concept, notion or ideological formulation had to be gauged in the light of the benchmarks set by the ‘enlightenment’ in Europe.

Immediacy of the social context had been done away with. All and sundry had one context, the post-enlightenment Europe. The only time a strong reaction to that line of thinking gushed out to the surface was in 1968, in European universities and in French academia.

A different incarnation of Marxism, which evolved in Germany and was led by scholarly giants like Marcuse, Adorno and Habermas (members of the Frankfurt School) mounted a formidable challenge to the well-entrenched socio-political narrative that emerged out of the postulates of enlightenment. That was the beginning of post-modernism, in which the individual was prioritised.

The subjective opinion began to matter as much as objectivity. French intellectuals like Derrida and Foucault, the ideologues of post-modernity, came to the intellectual foreground as a result of 1968 movement. Interestingly, the counter-narrative was enthusiastically received and later theorised in the American universities. Thus, American universities became the epicentre of post-colonial theory.

It is pertinent to mention that the entire Frankfurt School was relocated to America when Nazism established its sway in Germany. It churned out a huge corpus of scholarship from the late 1970s onwards. But the question remains: was ‘the individual’ redeemed? Before embarking on this question, let’s figure out why did the need for post-modernity arise?

My own opinion is that the two world wars and the havoc that they had wreaked on the people of Europe, provided an excuse for taking a fresh look at the theoretical underpinning of the socio-political ideology that the European people had so far adhered to.

Objectivity, universalism of European ideas and postulates and singularity of the context were propounded so zealously by the Western thinkers that the ‘individual’ was lost, so was his subjectivity. Here the significance of existentialism and literature as a means of its expression must be recognised.

Jean Paul Sartre and Camus are chief proponents of that trend. The impact of that movement was worldwide. Pakistani writers, too, took great interest in existentialist philosophy. Abdullah Hussain, Wazir Agha and Enver Sajjad can be cited in this regard. Having said that, has the ‘individual’ been set free after the onset of post-modernism? That is the question I will take up in the next column.

Interrogating the idea of ‘freedom’